What We Learned After 8 Years In Facebook Groups

We’d like to talk about groups, boundaries, “sprouts,” our outdated “one group per person” rule, and the problematic structure of the Buy Nothing Project as it exists on Facebook. We’re grateful to Facebook for their free Groups platform that we used originally to empower people around the world to create Buy Nothing communities for themselves. We’ve learned a lot over the past 8 years, and have come to appreciate the damage that comes along with the benefits of using Groups as the defining structure of this movement. 
Here are a few truths we’ve learned about online gift economies: 
  • Gift economies function when people trust each other. 
  • People have an easier time trusting each other when there are connections and mutual friendships between community members. 
  • These connections and mutual friendships are easier to build and see when online gift economy groups have 1,000 or fewer members. 
  • Online gift economy groups function best when people commit to one group, so that they only have to monitor one stream of comments. 
  • Online groups that have real-world geographic boundaries beget a climate of exclusion, gatekeeping, and a sort of border patrol mentality that is fundamentally out of alignment with our Buy Nothing Project philosophy and goals. 
  • Online groups that use real-world geographic boundaries are going to replicate historic lines of segregation and other injustices, such as Redlining, that are worked through many nation’s neighborhoods. 
  • Gift economies are egalitarian at their core and function best when each participant is on equal footing, with equal agency, to make their own choices. 
  • Online Facebook Groups are not an egalitarian structure. 
Dealing with Group Growth through Sprouting & Capping
When we selected Facebook as the first home for our Buy Nothing Project experiment, we were committing to using Groups as the structure that would allow people to access a local gift economy. We learned very quickly that groups that had more than 1,000 members began to drift into a sort of chaos, in which many Asks and Gives were unseen and unmet, because there was simply too much happening. Also, people began to feel unsafe because the mutual connections and real life relationships that build trust were harder to see, or no longer present. People grow frustrated in this situation and turn to other online portals for simultaneous posting of their Gives and Asks, and this leads to more confusion and frustration that further erodes the trust and joy that grow in smaller gift economy groups. 
If you choose to stay in an online group structure you’re going to have to deal with growth. Online Groups reach a tipping point when there are so many participants that trying to serve as admin becomes more than a full time job, and group participants also become frustrated and angry with each other as it becomes more and more difficult for people to Buy Nothing. To address this problem, we experimented with helping unsustainably large Facebook groups transform, or “sprout,” into smaller, more hyper-local groups. We’ve also helped groups “cap” their membership at a sustainable number of participants, and then inviting the creation of “sibling groups” that serve the same area. All of these practices make people feel excluded, they tear relationships apart, and they are problematic especially when new groups divide and segregate communities. 
When you’re trying to build an egalitarian gift economy within a structure that isn’t egalitarian, there are extra challenges. We have been trying to meet this challenge for 8 years now, and we know many of you may want to carry on with this work, using Facebook Groups as the host for your Buy Nothing experience. With that in mind, here are some concrete ways we call on you to take action to address the systemic injustices present in online group gift economies that rely on admins as gatekeepers within a boundaried geographic location. We know there are other possible actions, and hope you will approach this through discussions with your Buy Nothing community, to come up with an approach that addresses these concerns: 
When we committed to using Groups, we also set up a situation where we used neighborhood names to identify Buy Nothing Project groups on Facebook. Group admins requested maps with polygons showing their group regions, so that others could establish nearby groups to provide everyone with a local Buy Nothing group, ensuring that no portions of any region were left out.. However, when people divide themselves into groups, with boundaries to keep one group separate from another, this very act creates a mindset of exclusion and us vs them that we need to address. One way is to let community members decide for themselves which communities they identify as their own. We get hundreds of email messages each week, from people around the world who want to Buy Nothing. The top questions are, “When will I be able to do this off Facebook?,” “Why can’t I join more than 1 group?,” and “Why have I been removed or not admitted to my local Buy Nothing group on Facebook?” All of these questions speak to the ways in which the structure we have created within Facebook’s Groups platform have created a climate of gatekeeping and exclusion that has prevented people from connecting with the real-world communities they are part of. 
There is only one gift economy group that we make decisions for, and it’s our own local Buy Nothing group where we live. To address these issues for our community, we are moving to the BuyNothing app, where each of us will have the agency to identify for ourselves where we’d like to share. We hope you’ll join us there to help us bring this movement to life in new ways that are more accessible and less divisive. We’re building digital architecture that will allow each of us to monitor one stream of Gives, Asks, and Gratitude that’s under your personal control. 
If you choose to stay on Facebook, we encourage you to remove any street boundaries that your group may have and just identify your group with a place name. Soft boundaries can be a graceful way of providing guidance for where the sharing takes place, but without strict enforcement that excludes people who are active community members. Many streets, especially highways, have served to reinforce racial divides and in an effort to dismantle our own use of a divisive system, we’d like to undo the steps we may have taken to reinforce historic redlining which marginalized entire communities of people. For instance, when highways were built in the US, especially through major cities, they reinforced racial divides within those cities, and now many cities are removing those very highways in an effort to heal the divides. We encourage each Buy Nothing Facebook group to do the same: remove those borders, stop policing them, and allow for people to choose and define their own communities for sharing. 
We realize there is a resource map that shows where Buy Nothing Facebook groups exist. We are rethinking what the Buy Nothing groups map will look like in the future and if we even have one at all, as there are so many communities worldwide, on many platforms, and overlapping with each other, multiple groups in one locale, etc. 
One Group Rule
Further, if we drop the concern about the one group rule and trust that people will connect with others where it works for them, there can be a slackening in the gatekeeping within your gift economy. We’ve noticed that it’s very difficult for people to participate in more than one gift economy fully. We each also tend to commit to the communities where we feel welcome. For Facebook Buy Nothing group admins, the practicalities of these suggestions, to move toward more equitable giving, would mean removing your boundaries from your group description and to simply use a place name, while welcoming anyone who identifies themselves as a member of your community. You can also slacken the one group rule and put your trust in people, and the fact that they will truly commit to the local gift economies that work best for their needs. Having options in both the BuyNothing app as well as Facebook groups or any other giving platform is the kind of abundance we’ve envisioned for years. This is our ultimate dream, that sharing together becomes the norm, no matter where you are or what platform you use to connect with people. 
We have been asked by many if the one group rule applies to the app, too. If you’re in the app, does that mean you cannot participate in your Facebook group? Absolutely not! The app will be freely available to anyone with a smart phone or tablet, or computer with internet access. We welcome everyone, including people who are in other versions of Buy Nothing groups and other gift economies, on any and all platforms. Each and every gift economy contributes to a more sustainable and compassionate world; the more gift economies there are, the more likely it is that everyone will find one that works for them, or several that work for them. All giving is good giving, there is no such thing as too many gift economies. Eventually, we each find what works for us and choose to focus our time and energy within the communities where sharing can be integrated in our daily lives with ease and joy.
For Facebook groups, “admins” are required to set up and maintain each group, approve membership requests, and perform other Facebook-specific tasks to keep groups open and active. This puts Admins in a position of power over group participants. This power is a necessary function of this online group architecture, and many admins (perhaps even the majority) exercise their power wisely and with compassion. Sometimes, though, this power is used to prevent people from joining a Buy Nothing community they identify with, or to remove people for reasons that aren’t in alignment with the Buy Nothing Project’s principles. Even when admin power is used well, it’s still power over others and this very structure subverts the democratic principles of a gift economy. 
Here’s a piece written by LaTonya Baldwin, one of the Buy Nothing Project’s first volunteers, writing about her experiences and observations of this phenomenon:
Egalitarian communities are not possible under this model, as Admins have the power to admit people and/or remove them. This single factor may be one of the most challenging we’ve faced, with regards to how we behave as humans and when faced with that power there will be some of us who will use that power in a way that may harm others (whether intended or not.) We would like to find a way to create a more democratic experience for everyone, so we each can make our own choices, especially about the community we identify as our own. The platform we’re building, that will be freely accessible via our app, will hold everyone equally accountable to the BuyNothing principles while empowering each person to curate their own community and Give, Ask, and Share as they choose. 
Our Personal Accountability
We are writing this as the two co-founders of the Buy Nothing Project. When we speak out about these issues, we hear from some volunteer Buy Nothing Facebook group admins that they feel we are “throwing them under the bus.” Our desire is to throw ourselves under the bus. We started this experiment; we made the choice to use Facebook Groups as our platform; we incubated thousands of groups and have provided free support and guidance for thousands of volunteer admins; we helped create the sprouting and capping protocols; we attempted to address the inequities that arose in local Buy Nothing groups within the free materials we created and online support. But we cannot get around the fact that a structure with unequal power begets systemic injustices. Because we made these choices, and because our intent was not the same as our impact, we are taking responsibility: We are working now to create a new iteration of the Buy Nothing Project informed by all of these lessons, with new voices in the mix, so that we can offer the world a more accessible, more responsive platform that we hope will give each of us equal agency to participate in the Buy Nothing movement. 
We’re building our app to address the lessons we’ve learned from 8 years on Facebook, and also to greatly expand the scope of Buy Nothing. Gift economies have great power to bring about lasting positive change for individuals and communities, and there is much of our Buy Nothing philosophy that we haven’t included in the Buy Nothing experience on Facebook. We’re excited to bring more of this depth and breadth to the Buy Nothing app experience. We hope you will join us and learn new lessons about how we can improve the Buy Nothing movement, to make our shared impact even stronger and more positive.
Yours in Buying Nothing,
Liesl Clark & Rebecca Rockefeller